In an ideal world, here’s the exchange Lucy DeCoutere would have preferred with Jian Ghomeshi, after the fact: a conversation with a mediator in the room, held far out of the public gaze, about what happened and why.
“All it is is words. That’s all it is,” DeCoutere said in an interview. “But to do that requires an openness and a vulnerability which most people find very uncomfortable.”
Instead, DeCoutere read Reflections From A Hashtag, an essay Ghomeshi penned for the New York Review of Books in September. The former CBC broadcaster, charged and later acquitted of sexual assault and choking, detailed his life before and after becoming an “outcast." Ghomeshi described some of the accusations as inaccurate, characterizing his behaviour on dates as “emotionally thoughtless” and “demanding."
DeCoutere, one of Ghomeshi’s accusers, said she had scanned the essay, looking in vain for any sign of contrition. She’d hoped for something better than this.
Amid #MeToo, a number of Canadian men were accused of sexual abuse and have recently re-emerged in the public eye. In October, Patrick Brown was elected mayor of Brampton, Ont., after stepping down as leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party following sexual-misconduct allegations, which he denies. Also last month, The Globe and Mail reported that Albert Schultz, former artistic director of Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company, had resurfaced in Port Hope, Ont., where he’d been informally advising another theatre company. This, after four actresses accused Schultz of workplace sexual harassment and launched civil lawsuits, which are now settled. In the fall, Ghomeshi’s attempt at re-entry from the pages of a vaunted literary magazine faced a torrent of criticism, leading to the resignation of the magazine’s editor, Ian Buruma.
South of the border, two prominent comedians accused of sexual misconduct are back on stage. Louis C.K., who admitted to masturbating in front of numerous female colleagues, has been doing surprise comedy sets in New York where he’s been greeted with at least one standing ovation. Aziz Ansari has a North American tour lined up, with some tickets selling out.
As they resurface, the men are being met both with open arms and anger. On the one hand, supporters say they’ve been exiled for long enough. Defending Louis C.K.'s sets at the Comedy Cellar, club owner Noam Dworman said he’s neither a judge nor a censor: “I believe that the man is entitled to his livelihood and that it’s up to the audience to go or not go," Dworman told the Hollywood Reporter.
Meanwhile, victims' advocates are galled that redemption narratives are bubbling up this soon. The men’s returns are premature, they say, because we’ve not yet seen a strong apology from a single high-profile figure accused under #MeToo. “There is no possible legitimate comeback if you haven’t at least admitted what you’ve done,” Toronto sex educator Andrea Zanin said. “We’re getting ahead of ourselves.”
A year into the movement, the men’s comebacks are provoking a complicated question: What is the right way for men accused of sexual misconduct to make amends?
A handful of women have come forward with stories about abusers who gave them meaningful apologies, offering insight into how reparation can be done right.
In January, there was the very public exchange between Dan Harmon, creator of the NBC sitcom Community, and Megan Ganz, a writer and employee Harmon had sexually harassed for years. After a terse exchange with Ganz on Twitter, followed by an e-mailed conversation, Harmon delivered a seven-minute apology on his podcast, where he went into great detail about his campaign of sexual harassment and the toll it took on his employee.
Ganz called it “a masterclass in How to Apologize." For her, the most important part was that Harmon had been specific about what he’d done. “What I didn’t expect was the relief I’d feel just hearing him say these things actually happened,” Ganz tweeted. “I didn’t dream it. I’m not crazy.”
Ganz recognized the paradox of getting comfort from an unusual source: the abuser. Similar emotions welled up for author Caitlin Flanagan, who wrote about the night a boy tried to rape her in high school for the Atlantic in September. The boy apologized twice for his actions: once in her yearbook and again at a department-store counter where she was working. He approached “overwrought,” with tears in his eyes.
“It was a weird ambush of intense guilt and apology, and it was the wrong place and time – but the thing was, I really did forgive him,” Flanagan wrote. “He’d done a terrible thing, but he’d done what he could to make it right.”
For Thordis Elva, validation was key: a deep acknowledgment from her abuser that she was never at fault. When she was 16, Elva was raped by her 18-year-old boyfriend Tom Stranger, who left her days afterward. Nearly a decade later, Elva reached out to Stranger for accountability. Eight years of difficult e-mails followed. The conversations yielded a surprising reconciliation: a joint public speaking tour and the 2017 book South of Forgiveness: A True Story of Rape and Responsibility.
Elva said the exchange helped heal her trauma because it was about vindicating her, not about redeeming him. “Forgiveness was the last thing on my mind for years and years,” Elva told The Globe from Stockholm. “It was a byproduct of something I found far more important, that Tom shouldered the blame that always belonged to him but I had wrongfully carried for years on end.”
Apology remains a divisive topic among victims, some of whom know exactly what they’d want to hear from an abuser, others recoiling at the thought of any contact with those who hurt them. Whichever path a victim decides to take, true accountability from abusers takes hard work – not a scripted apology or one-off public statement, said Meg Saxby, a Toronto social worker who along with Natalie Boustead hosts Levelling Up, a workshop series about relationships and consent for men.
“You have to be able to honestly look at your behaviour and ask yourself, ‘What factors led me to this? … How can I unlearn this? What can I practise instead in my relationships with women? How will I hold myself accountable if and when I falter?’” Saxby said. “That’s the groundwork needed to make a real apology and maybe – if you’re lucky – repair the relationship.”
Tod Augusta-Scott, a social worker who mediates conversations between victims and abusers at the Bridges Institute in Truro, N.S., said that since #MeToo erupted last October, he’s seen a 15 per cent jump in the number of men seeking help to speak with women they’ve hurt.
Augusta-Scott guided this kind of collaborative dialogue between Toronto filmmaker Attiya Khan and her abusive ex-boyfriend. Khan shared the harrowing process in her 2017 documentary A Better Man, a close-range look at the healing that can come about when men take responsibility.
Augusta-Scott explained how the conversations take place: Contact can only happen if women agree, and after abusers have been thoroughly vetted and coached. Women steer the exchanges, which typically play out over a series of months, either face-to-face or remotely. Often, they want to know why it happened, whether it’s still happening and what the men are doing to stop it. Some want offenders to make amends in their families and communities: Are they mentoring their sons and other men not to hurt others this way?
The social worker noticed that none of the public apologies in recent months gave much airtime to the victims, the violations or their aftershocks. “People often try to apologize before they’ve acknowledged what went on,” said Augusta-Scott. “We don’t have in wide circulation what it means to actually take responsibility.”
He stressed that there is no formula for a successful apology; it all depends on the victim. Abusers are asked to stop and think about the impact of their violent behaviour. Counsellors avoid the notions of forgiveness or redemption. “The lead note needs to be: He’s doing this because he thinks this is the right thing to do,” Augusta-Scott said.
Such conversations can give some traumatized survivors “unexpected release,” said Debbie Van Horne, a clinical social worker who counsels women at the Bridges Institute. Van Horne said one client framed it as a new chapter in her memory of the abuser.
“That last chapter has positioned her with power, a return of dignity and a sign of hope that things actually can be different – and that men can be different, too.”